Creating a Healthy Relationship With Food

Creating a Healthy Relationship with Food

We’ve all done it. We’ve bribed our child with a treat. Gasp. Just know you’re not alone. But really, should we be using unhealthy foods to motivate our kids? Probably not. It certainly doesn’t set them up for a healthy relationship with food down the road.

Have you ever considered how our interactions are shaping our kid’s views on food and it’s role in our lives? I know I have, and at some points I’ve definitely needed to take a step back and reword some of my conversations.

So let’s start with asking ourselves a few key questions about how we frame food. Then we’ll talk about a few healthy attitudes that can help your kiddos get started on a healthy relationship with food.

1. How are we talking about food?

Is it something that is solely there to make us feel good? Feel happier? Just taste good? Or do we talk about how food helps our bodies be healthy?

We need to help our kids understand that food is what gives them energy; food is fuel. Talking about how healthy foods help us run faster, jump higher, and be stronger are great words to use when talking about foods. They may not need to know the specifics of how much calcium each serving of milk has, but it’s a great idea to casually mention that milk helps our bones grow stronger. We often talk about how carrots help our eyes see better, or that the meat on our plates helps our muscles be stronger. Bottom line, kids can understand that food is there to help fuel our bodies and help them grow and be healthy.

2. Do we encourage our kids to clean their plate, or just eat one more bite?

An essential part of a healthy relationship with food is respecting hunger and fullness. Kids are inherently good at regulating how much food they need. Unless continually prodded and forced, they will stop eating when they are full.

We need respect that. Some days that means they will take two bites and be done. (This happens pretty often at my house, so I ask them to stay at the table until everyone is finished. That way, they can really decide if they are hungry and not just antsy to get back to playing.) We can also help them identify what it feels like to be physically hungry (things like a rumbling in their stomach, etc.).

3. Are foods referred to as good or bad?

We often hear foods labeled as “good” and “bad”. But really, have you ever seen a food make a good or bad moral decision?! I didn’t think so. We need to stop judging our foods and start thinking about them in terms of how often we should eat them to be healthy. Foods that don’t have as much nutritional value can be referred to as “sometimes foods”. If you’re already framing food as fuel, it’s easy to explain to your child that that piece of candy doesn’t have anything in it to help us grow healthy and strong. We can certainly enjoy a piece of candy every now and then, but we need to focus on those foods that help them be healthy.

4. Do you use food to motivate or encourage a child?

When we’re helping our kids understand how to fuel their bodies, it’s important that we don’t confuse them by using food as a reward or withhold it as a punishment (think no dessert if you don't clean your plate).

Our eating of these “sometimes foods” shouldn’t be dependent on anything else. If dessert is on the menu, it shouldn’t be set up as a reward for cleaning their plate or finishing their veggies.

Let’s visit an all too common table conversation between a parent and child.

Parent: Please eat your veggies.

Child: Nope. I don’t like them.

Parent: But you need to eat them. If you eat 4 bites, you can have a cookie after dinner.

Can you see how automatically the veggies are just something the child has to get through to get the cookie or the reward? When we used foods as a rewards we start changing their value.

Those veggies aren’t just veggies anymore either; they’re a chore and now have a negative connotation. And that cookie isn’t just a cookie anymore; it’s a representation of something positive, something to seek for. Combine the reward factor with the yummy sugar factor and kids easily learn that cookies are yummy and veggies are gross. Let’s revisit that same scenario with a parent who is encourages a healthy relationship with food.

Parent: How is dinner tasting?

Child: I don’t like these veggies. I won’t eat them.

Parent: That’s fine. You might try just a taste to see if you’ve changed your mind.

Child: I just want the cookies. No veggies.

Parent: Well, those veggies help your body grow healthy and strong. You can choose whether or not you eat them, but I’d like for you to think about tasting them. You can have a cookie after we finish our meal.

See how the parent respects the child, but still encourages trying new foods. It’s a fine line, and one that takes some practice to achieve, but it’s important to separate the emotion or the reward value from the food. Check out this list of non-food rewards for kids.

So how do we make sure our kids develop these healthy attitudes? It starts with us as parents, we need to model these behaviors and attitudes. The first step to helping your kids have a healthy relationship with food is to have one yourself. Model these actions and attitudes. In no time, your kids will pick up on it and you’ll all improve your relationship with food.

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